Travel agents sell a delightful array of products: Adventure. Romance. Pleasure. Simple relaxation.

Customers show up with great expectations, and they pay sometimes substantial sums for what may be the dream vacation of their lives. So they want everything to go right.

Now, there's no way to assure the perfect trip. But travel agents who know what they are doing can certainly improve the chances.

For 15 years, Doris and Philip Davidoff have operated an 11-person travel agency, Belair Travel Consultants, in Bowie, Md., specializing in vacation travel. She is the president and general manager.

The Davidoffs have been active in training agents. Their goal is to help agents and agencies become knowledgeable travel consultants rather than simply, as they put it, "ticket technicians."

Doris S. Davidoff has just stepped down after two years as a trustee of the Institute of Certified Travel Agents, an organization committed to improving the caliber of agents. About 5,000 agents have received the institute's Certified Travel Counselor designation, awarded after a course of study, exams and five years' experience.

Philip G. Davidoff served for two years as staff vice president of education and training for the American Society of Travel Agents, the travel industry's largest professional association. He is now president and executive director of Davidoff Associates, which provides training seminars for travel agents.

The Davidoffs, interviewed recently at their Bowie office, don't hesitate to point out that the quality of agents -- there are about 26,000 of them in the country -- ranges from good to mediocre to bad, and the traveler should "beware."

So, how do you find a good agent? Can an agent really save you money? And what about complaints?

They answered these and other questions about doing business with a travel agent, and offered some tips on how to avoid being disappointed on a vacation trip.Q Do you get clients who come in and say, for example, "I want to go to Europe. Help me, I don't know where I want to go"? A (She) Oh, definitely. We'll even get them asking more than that. They'll just say, "I want to go away."

The first step, if they have no idea where they want to go, is to find out what they like to do. Because there's a big difference between the relaxing beach vacation and hectic, but exciting, sightseeing around Europe.

If they've traveled before, it's a good idea to find out where they have been. What did they like most? What types of hotels did they stay in? Did they like them? That gives you some feeling for what their likes and dislikes are and what they are likely to want to do in the future.

If they have never traveled before, or it's been nothing more than visiting friends or relatives or going to Ocean City, then you find out what they like to do at home.

And then, once you get that narrowed down, you also have to determine what kind of budget they have in mind. Sometimes it's even a good idea to determine the budgetary needs before the likes and dislikes, because people frequently have a very unrealistic idea -- particularly based on some of today's ads -- on what they can do for what price.

Every so often we'll get a call from a couple that wants to take a very nice Caribbean island vacation, and their budget is $500 for the two of them. You're just not going to be able to do that at the level they want. There are some charter programs, but they have to know the pros and cons of that. Q What can the client do to help you? A (She) The best thing for a client to do is, No. 1, know what they want to do. Do they want to sightsee? Do they want to relax? Do they like night life? Do they like gambling, or doesn't it matter? When they're prepared to answer those questions, it helps. Q Doesn't it partly depend on how you feel at the time? If you have had a hectic week, then you want to take a relaxing vacation. But if you've been sitting in a quiet office, maybe you want a little faster pace? A (She) Definitely. What most people want in a vacation is a break from what they have been doing. If what they've been doing is boring and stationary, then the idea of an exciting but hectic and exhausting trip around Europe may be perfect.

But if they've been under intense pressure and have been running around like anything, then that's probably the last thing they want. And a nice cruise or beach vacation might be just what the doctor ordered.

They should have a feeling for their budget before going into a travel agency. It's just like buying any product. The agent is going to show them things they are really going to want to do. But if the price is too high, they may spend more than they have to. And maybe regret it afterward.

The one beautiful thing about travel is, there is something for almost any price range. You can go to a place that is closer rather than farther; you can go for three days instead of five, or five days instead of seven.

(He) The biggest disappointments come when travelers cut back on the life-style level that they really enjoy in order to extend the vacation. They're really better off with fewer days, but at the level they want. The people who live in a comfortable house, unless they're really campers or used to going out on what the Europeans call a tourist-class basis, just aren't going to be comfortable in a cheap European hotel.

(She) The worst thing is to spend, say, two weeks instead of one but not like the two weeks. They'd be much better off with a beautiful one week.

Very often today's advertising tends to promote the lowest possible price; and therefore, the public sees that price and that becomes their idea of what it's going to cost them. They should realize the prices they see are bottom-line prices and be aware that if that's all they can afford to spend, they may not really want that trip. Q How much time can a travel agent spend with a client and make any money? Can a customer come in and say, "I would like you to design an individual trip for me to all these little towns with bed-and-breakfast inns"? A (She) Basically, I would say that a travel agent makes his or her money on commission. Now when I say agent, I don't mean the individual agent, because in this part of the country most full-time travel agents are working on a straight salary. But the agency makes its money to pay their salary on commissions.

So if a person is coming in, and there is a package that appeals to them that can be sold relatively quickly, then there's no need to put on a service charge. The commissions that the agency gains should be sufficient to carry that sale.

There are enough packages around today to cover the needs of most travelers -- 95 percent of them. The agent should have enough knowledge to find that package fairly quickly and be able to give the travelers the information they need.

But if the clients really have a need for personalized service -- this idea of going around to experience the European pension environment -- and there is no package that meets their choice of cities -- then they should expect to have to pay a service charge. Q Such as? A (She) That would depend on the time.

(He) Those agencies, and there are some, that specialize in this personalized, specifically tailored program will include a fee in the total bottom-line price. And that fee will usually be based both on the value of the trip itself and on the time involved in planning it . If they want something specifically tailored, travelers should be willing to pay for it.

If travelers want tailored travel and low price, our recommendation is that they book the air ticket and the rental car or Eurailpass with the travel agency. But then research the little pensions themselves, or go without reservations as you can do throughout most of Europe, and just travel easily. Q Travel agents are selling a product. How do they see themselves? Representing the travel packagers or representing the client? A (She) I would say that although from a legal point of view in many cases we are agents of, say, the airlines and in the case of tour operators we represent a lot of them, I would say that if you would ask any good agent, they see themselves as first and foremost representing the interests of the client. Because if they don't get that repeat business . . .

Let's say that I have two operators dealing with a given area, and I get a greater commission from one than I do from the other -- which may very well be the case. If they are both packagers that are equal to the client's needs -- same price, same kind of quality, trip, everything from the client's viewpoint is the same -- then I'm probably going to go with the one that pays me the additional commission.

But if there is any difference between those two packages that would in any way create a difference for my client, then I'm going to go with the one that's best for my client, even if it means less commission for me, because ultimately I'm going to have that client come back next year. I'm going to have him recommend his friends to me, instead of going out and saying, "Hey, she ripped me off. Don't go to her." I make more money in the end by representing the client's interests.

You have to spend much more time with the client who has come to you cold the first time than one that's either been referred to you or has dealt with you before. Because first you have to gain his trust, and then you sell the products he's interested in buying. When he's already dealt with you and has faith in you, then you can go right into the trip and know what he likes, and so on. Q How does a traveler know if he or she has a good travel agent? A (She) Once he's used him, he knows whether he's got a good one or not by whether he was satisfied.

But if he's looking for one, the best bet is to check with friends who have used an agent. Have they been happy with the agent? Do these friends have tastes that are similar to his? And what do they hear about the reputation of an agent?

Then if they don't have specific references from friends, I would make sure that the agency is a member of the American Society of Travel Agents. Now that's a very large organization, and it's not a guarantee that the agency is a good agency. But I would say that the bulk of good vacation agencies are members. An agency that does not see fit to belong to the largest trade association in the industry is an agency that is not concerned with what's happening in the industry at large, in most cases.

Also: If they are a member of ASTA, if you do have a problem with them afterward, ASTA will go to bat to help you solve that problem and bring its clout to bear. It has a very good consumer affairs department.

After assuring that the agency is a member of ASTA, I would check if there is anybody on that staff, at least one person, who is a Certified Travel Counselor. Again, not to say that an agency that has no CTCs on it is not a good agency, but if there is a CTC that's again a way to prove that they went a step above and beyond the norm.

The public, I definitely feel, should use an agent. I feel that anybody in the public that is not using an agent is not getting a service that is available for them at basically no additional cost. And somebody in their corner to make sure they're doing the best thing, to help them if there's a problem.

But I really believe it's a consumer-beware situation where people cannot trust every travel agent as equal, and they've got to be very careful. There are no rules as to who can call themselves a travel agent. There are too many people who call themselves travel agents but have taken no effort to learn the business.

When you go into an agency for the first time, you should sit down and question them. Find out if they really seem to care. Do they know their products? You're spending a pretty fair amount of money. It's worth taking a little time to interview the agent. Q What are the most difficult kind of vacation trips for you to plan? A The ones where the person has unrealistic expectations of what they can get for a given amount of money. What we refer to as the champagne tastes on a beer budget. It's very difficult, because you can't tell the client that he's being unreasonable, and yet you've got to find a product to satisfy the client so he's not going to come back dissatisfied. Q What about travelers who like to sit down and plan their own trip? Can you help them? A (She) We have had this happen a number of times, because a lot of people say they don't want to use an agency because, "I like to do the planning."

(He) It's fun. I think it's the reason I got into the travel business. I like to plan my own travel.

(She) We have one client who comes in here. He has a handwritten itinerary day by day. He's chosen the flights, and so on. What we do, then, is we sit down and analyze what that person has done. And in many cases, depending upon the person's experience, he may have already gotten himself the best things.

But we may say, "Are you aware that there is something else that you might consider? If you stay one day longer, you'll save $100 on the air fare," or whatever it may be. Then we give him the choice. Does he want to make that change, or not?

By doing it through us to buy tickets, make deposits , it doesn't cost him any more. He's had the fun. He's done all the work. But should a problem come up afterward, he's got someone there in his corner to help him fight it, who's got a little more clout than the individual has.

We know the ropes. We can use the ASTA consumer affairs office. We've got friends among the airlines and hotels that have clout. You've got a chain of pressure you can bring to bear when a problem has arisen. Q Can you help the college-age vagabond backpacker who's looking for youth hostels? A (She) We do not help them with the youth hostels, but what we do help them with is getting the best air fare to get over there and getting a student rail pass. And we can give them the addresses to write to for the youth hostel cards and for the information. He's not in a position to want to pay us for time for planning. Q Do you recommend charters? A (She) I sell them. I recommend them to certain people, because there are certain people to whom there's no question they are the best value.

However, in our office nobody [customer] is permitted to buy a charter wtihout signing a letter that acknowledges that we have told them the pros and cons of charter travel. When you buy a charter program you're saving a lot of money. But you are taking some risks.

And you've got to be flexible. If you are a person who likes everything to go exactly as you planned it, and you don't have patience with problems, then don't take a charter.

(He) And then you'll hear of a lot of people who go on charter trips, and everything goes exactly as the brochure says. Which is wonderful, but they have a higher rate -- a substantially higher rate -- of problems. Q What if somebody comes in and says, "I'd like to take a cruise." How do you help them? Do you know the cruise lines? A (She) Oh, absolutely. In fact, cruising is one of our favorite products to sell. There is such a low rate of problems and complaints. It is very rare to have a dissatisfied cruise client. The thing about a cruise is, it has a life style, a method of pampering that you just don't get, even in some of the finest hotels. Q How do you recommend one cruise line or one ship over another? A (She) Again, you get to know the personalities of the lines and then you interview the person. The age of the couple, both chronological and psychological, will affect to some extent what line you choose.

If they've traveled before and have always gone to ultra-deluxe hotels, then you're going to put them on a more deluxe cruise line. If they are real "fun"-spirited, you're going to put them on one of the party-type ships. If they like water sports very much -- love to scuba, snorkel and so on -- then you're going to look for one of the lines that specializes in this.

If they've cruised before, you're going to want to put them on a ship that's at least as good, or better. Do they have any interest in any ports? You'll find that the more experienced they are at cruising, the less they care about what ports it goes to. Q Have you seen any changes in the way people travel? A (He) Over the past 15 years, I would say there's been a tremendous trend from a site-orientation to a people-orientation, an interest not just in seeing the Eiffel Tower, but seeing the French people.

(She) I see more people not wanting to spend their time in the big cities of Europe, but going on a fly-drive trip where they get into the countryside and see the real environment.

(He) It's probably because 15 years ago there were so many first-time travelers compared to today. Back when we were in high school, a big trip was a trip to Washington, D.C. Today high school students go to Europe.

(She) And, therefore, when travel is something they do from their teen years up, they're a little more adventurous, a little less afraid of leaving the big-city environment. Travel that was such a special thing to the parents becomes something taken for granted and assumed by the young people.

As they get into their twenties and thirties, travel is a way of life. Q Do you do much traveling yourselves? A (She) We do a fair amount of traveling, but Phil and I probably don't do as much exotic traveling, certainly not as much as most people think agents do, because we're on the road so much giving seminars to travel agents. And the seminars are usually in places not known as the garden spots of the world. But there is a certain amount of travel that we do, that the typical travel agent does, because it is the only way they can become informed and stay up to date.

(He) When we want to relax, we take a cruise or go to Hawaii.